Homily for Saints Peter and Paul

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Glory to Jesus Christ, glory forever.

We find that on this day we have a wealth of readings to contemplate as we celebrate the memory of both the greatest of the Apostles, Peter and Paul.  In the epistle we learn of the greatness of the visions of St. Paul, but more importantly than this we learn of St. Paul’s humility.  Why would St. Paul go to the trouble of telling us that he had seen the Kingdom of Heaven (although he veils it with the “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago….” We know that it was he), but he emphasizes his own weakness.  He even points out that the man was “in Christ” so that we know that the visions come from a source higher than the man himself, than Paul himself.

          The passage concerning St. Peter seems to be a little more positive about the character of Peter.  He’s given the keys to the Kingdom for his confession of Christ.  However, we must remember that in the very next verses when he wishes not to recognize that Christ must suffer, what does Christ say to this man whose confession is the rock on which the Church will be built?  “Get behind me Satan.”  Peter, that rock of faith, is rebuked by the Lord.  He is humbled.  Peter, we know will also deny Christ three times and weep bitterly for his faithlessness.  He would weep bitterly, but he would be forgiven and by him thousands would be added to the body of Christ. 

Peter and Paul:  Peter the fisherman who wavered and then became the rock of his namesake, and Paul the persecutor of the Church, the enemy, the Pharisee of Pharisees who became the Apostle to the Gentiles:  this is the material that Christ chooses to mold into the epitome of the missionary saint.  We should all be encouraged by this.  We can all recognize ourselves in these men of clay.

Why would the Lord choose these men?  Humility:  both Peter and Paul were able to humble themselves before the Lord and for this they were brought up from the depths to the heights of glory.  Elsewhere in the Gospels we read, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  It appears that to humble oneself is the better option than to let the Lord do it for you.

This is not what we want to hear in today’s world.  We live in a society which says we must be happy.  If we go to Church we’ve got to be smiling and bubbly.  We are afraid of sorrow, of humility, and yet in the beatitudes we hear, “blessed are they that mourn...”   Last week we looked a little more in depth at the Beatitudes.

Remember how they begin?  The beatitudes begin “blessed are the poor in spirit....”  These don’t sound very happy.  Later, we hear that those who are persecuted for righteousness sake are also blessed.  Looking at today’s Epistle reading we also heard that “lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Our culture doesn’t know how to handle this; we want to have high self-esteem.  I have said this before and will probably say it again.  The Fathers say that self-esteem leads to pride which is the downfall of a man.  In the Philokalia it says that self-esteem is the gate that the demons use to gain entry to the soul.  A man’s intellect with some small spiritual progress will “mount the horse of self-esteem and immediately rides off into cities, taking its fill of the lavish praise accorded its repute.”  (Evagrios the Solitary, Philokalia V.1 p. 46-47) 

Paul had been a Pharisee.  In Matthew we find another description of the Pharisees that says “But all their works they do to be seen by men.  They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.  They love the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, Rabbi, Rabbi....”  The passage ends with the same warning that is in the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee, “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:5-7, 12) Self-esteem is just self-exaltation, and the self-exalted will not receive God’s exaltation.

When we see how we are totally dependent on God for everything, when we see how our sin forms a barrier between us and God (but never from God’s love), we will not exalt ourselves.  We should daily make a reckoning of how we have passed the day and examine our conscience.  We will see both our sins as they are, and, hopefully, some good that we have done by the Grace and help from God.

Let us return to the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The poor in spirit are seen by the Fathers to be those who are humble and contrite in soul.  As Christ says, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  What is that exaltation then?  It is receiving the kingdom of heaven which is far greater than the praise a man can heap on himself.  “Blessed are they who mourn.....”  The Fathers say that those who mourn are those who mourn for their sins.  The blessing continues, though.... “for they shall be comforted.”  Blessed Theophylact writes that they shall be comforted, “both in this life, for he who mourns for his sin rejoices spiritually, and even more so in the next life.” (p. 45, Explanation of the Gospel of Matthew)

What greater joy could there be than to know that by humility, by lowering ourselves, we gain eternity, the kingdom of heaven. 

How can we learn to become humble so that we too can gain the kingdom?  There is a clue in the Gospel about Peter:  “and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The Sacrament of Confession is the means of learning true humility.

There is so much that one can say about humility and confession.  Perhaps the most important is that the Lord told us to be humble even as He is humble.  Christ tells us in the Gospel to take up our Cross and to follow Him.  It is a courageous thing to take up the cross and to follow Christ.  It is a courageous thing to suffer as Christ did, to share in His suffering.  Our humility is our way of taking up that cross.  Our humility in repentance is how we can experience Golgotha and as we die with Christ, so we will rise with Him again.  Archimandrite Zacharias likens our repentance before  God and a witness in the priest as a means of this identification with Christ and His holy humilty.  He writes:

…repentance and confession are the cross taken up by the believer for his salvation and justification.  It consists of the shame suffered in disclosing his sins to God in the presence of a minister of the Church…..Whoever places himself in the Lord’s way through voluntary shame will find that the Lord is his companion, since He said that He is the Way, the Way of both truth and Life.  Therefore both grace and the life of the great Fellow-Traveler Himself are accorded to the believer who humbly desires the company of the Lord.  In a word, by voluntarily accepting shame in confession, one not only escapes involuntary shame at the Last Judgment, but one also receives God’s eternal recognition.

Perhaps with this in mind we can understand the words of Paul, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”…and most importantly we can make the first steps in following them.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ.  Glory forever.





©2009 Fr. Philip Kontos